An espalier is a fruit tree or shrub that has been pruned and trained to grow in a flat, two-dimensional plane. This type of growing can be useful in small, narrow spaces that are common in urban gardens, but the word has also come to define the artistic, horticultural technique of producing these plant forms.
The espalier method dates back to Roman and Medieval times, when many gardens occupied walled compounds. This technique not only saved space by keeping fruit trees and shrubs pressed against walls or fences, it also allowed more warmth, light and air to reach the fruit tree’s branches, flowers and fruit. Thus, fruit trees grown in the symmetrical espalier form tended to bear fruit earlier and be more productive.
For these reasons — and for their sheer beauty — espaliers still appeal to gardeners today.
If you have an artistic knack and time to prune, you might consider creating an espalier of your own. Espaliers require persistent, skillful pruning and patience, but if done correctly, can result in living, fruitful garden art. Here are a few espalier tips to get your garden started:
- Begin with a young, unbranched fruit tree or shrub or one that has already formed a few flexible, well-balanced branches.
- Choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit-tree type that produces its fruit on spurs rather than branch tips (best bets: pear trees and apple trees).
- Provide a strong support for your espalier in your garden: a wall, trellis, lattice or horizontal wire fence.
- Plant the fruit tree approximately 6 to 12 inches away from a wall to allow air circulation.
- Decide on an espalier pattern. Many classic espalier patterns exist, including fan, palm, candelabra, and T- or V-shaped. You can also design an informal pattern of your own.
- Tie branches loosely to supports with sisal twine, raffia or plant ties (avoid plastic twine or wire — they will damage branches). Check ties regularly and loosen if needed to prevent girdling.
- Prune and train the leader and lateral branches according to your chosen pattern. You’ll find espalier training guidelines in a number of gardening and pruning books.
About the Author: Cherie Langlois is a freelance writer and photographer who gardens in Washington state.